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Speed of Light and Michaelson Interferometer

This lab has two parts. A) The first is to measure the speed of light. B) The second is to
demonstrate the sensitivity of the Michelson Interferometer which was used to eliminate
the ‘ether’ hypothesis for light propagation, by using it to measure the index of refraction
of room air.

Both write-ups are taken from the Pasco website, and there are links on our webpage to
these for easy reference. The main changes are the addition of pre-lab questions and that
much of the setups will have already been accomplished when you arrive for the lab (steps
which have been stricken below).

A) Speed of Light:

You should only need to rotate the rotating mirror, and adjust the fine alignment of the
fixed mirror. Anything else will only be needed if something got bumped by accident.

One setup has an extra mirror between the rotating mirror and the fixed mirror, so that
the setup can still face the front of the table. NOTE: the fixed mirror is on the other
group’s table – so you will need to accommodate each-other.

PreLab Questions
1) How long does it take light to travel across the core of a Pentium chip? Compare this to a
3 GHz clock cycle. (Hint: simply find out the dimension of the chip, and the speed of
2) How long does an electrical signal take to reach from Blacksburg to Roanoke and back
using RG-58 coaxial cable? (You will need to do some Google searching about cables…)


Laser light passes through a series of lenses to produce an image of the light source at a
measured position. The light is then directed to a rotating mirror, which reflects the light to a
fixed mirror at a known distance from the rotating mirror. The laser light is reflected back
through its original path and a new image is formed at a slightly different position. The
difference between final/initial positions, angular velocity of the rotating mirror and distance
traveled by the light are then used to calculate the speed of light.


The velocity of light in free space is one of the most important and intriguing constants of nature.
Whether the light comes from a laser on a desktop or from a star that is hurtling away at fantastic
speeds, if you measure the velocity of the light, you measure the same constant value. In more
precise terminology, the velocity of light is independent of the relative velocities of the light
source and the observer. Furthermore, as Einstein first presented in his Special Theory of
Relativity, the speed of light is critically important in some surprising ways. In particular:

1. The velocity of light establishes an upper limit to the velocity that may be imparted to
any object.

2. Objects moving near the velocity of light follow a set of physical laws drastically
different, not only from Newton’s Laws, but from the basic assumptions of human

With this in mind, it’s not surprising that a great deal of time and effort has been invested in
measuring the speed of light. Some of the most accurate measurements were made by Albert
Michelson between 1926 and 1929 using methods very similar to those you will be using with
the PASCO Speed of Light Apparatus. Michelson measured the velocity of light in air to be
2.99712 x 108 m/sec. From this result he deduced the velocity in free space to be 2.99796 x 108
m/sec. But Michelson was by no means the first to concern himself with this measurement. His
work was built on a history of ever-improving methodology.
Through much of history, those few who thought to speculate on the velocity of light considered
it to be infinite. One of the first to question this assumption was the great Italian physicist
Galileo, who suggested a method for actually measuring the speed of light. The method was
simple. Two people, call them A and B, take covered lanterns to the tops of hills that are
separated by a distance of about a mile. First A uncovers her lantern. As soon as B sees A’s light,
she uncovers her own lantern. By measuring the time from when A uncovers her lantern until A
sees B’s light, then dividing this time by twice the distance between the hill tops, the speed of
light can be determined. However, the speed of light being what it is, and human reaction times
being what they are, Galileo was able to determine only that the speed of light was far greater
than could be measured using his procedure. Although Galileo was unable to provide even an
approximate value for the speed of light, his experiment set the stage for later attempts. It also
introduced an important point: to measure great velocities accurately, the measurements must be
made over a long distance.

The first successful measurement of the velocity of light was provided by the Danish astronomer
Olaf Römer in 1675. Römer based his measurement on observations of the eclipses of one of
Jupiter’s moons. As this moon orbits Jupiter, there is a period of time when Jupiter lies between
it and the Earth, and blocks it from view. Römer noticed that the duration of these eclipses was
shorter when the Earth was moving toward Jupiter than when the Earth was moving away. He
correctly interpreted this phenomena as resulting from the finite speed of light. Geometrically the
moon is always behind Jupiter for the same period of time during each eclipse. Suppose,
however, that the Earth is moving away from Jupiter. An astronomer on Earth catches his last
glimpse of the moon, not at the instant the moon moves behind Jupiter, but only after the last bit
of unblocked light from the moon reaches his eyes. There is a similar delay as the moon moves
out from behind Jupiter but, since the Earth has moved farther away, the light must now travel a
longer distance to reach the astronomer. The astronomer therefore sees an eclipse that lasts
longer than the actual geometrical eclipse. Similarly, when the Earth is moving toward Jupiter,
the astronomer sees an eclipse that lasts a shorter interval of time.

From observations of these eclipses over many years, Römer calculated the speed of light to be
2.1 x 108 m/sec. This value is approximately 1/3 too slow due to an inaccurate knowledge at that
time of the distances involved. Nevertheless, Römer’s method provided clear evidence that the
velocity of light was not infinite, and gave a reasonable estimate of its true value—not bad for

The French scientist Fizeau, in 1849, developed an ingenious method for measuring the speed of
light over terrestrial distances. He used a rapidly revolving cogwheel in front of a light source to
deliver the light to a distant mirror in discrete pulses. The mirror -reflected these pulses back
toward the cogwheel. Depending on the position of the cogwheel when a pulse returned, it would
either block the pulse of light or pass it through to an observer. Fizeau measured the rates of
cogwheel rotation that allowed observation of the returning pulses for carefully measured
distances between the cogwheel and the mirror. Using this method, Fizeau measured the speed of
light to be 3.15 x 108 m/sec. This is within a few percent of the currently accepted value.
Foucault improved Fizeau’s method, using a rotating mirror instead of a rotating cogwheel.
(Since this is the method you will use in this experiment, the details will be discussed in
considerable detail in the next section.) As mentioned, Michelson used Foucault’s method to
produce some remarkably accurate measurements of the velocity of light. The best of these
measurements gave a velocity of 2.99774 x 108 m/sec. This may be compared to the presently
accepted value of 2.99792458 x 108 m/sec.

The Foucault Method

Figure 1: Diagram of the Foucault Method

Qualitative Description
In this experiment, you will use a method for measuring the speed of light that is basically the
same as that developed by Foucault in 1862. A diagram of the experimental setup is shown in
Figure 1, above. With all the equipment properly aligned and with the rotating mirror stationary,
the optical path is as follows. The parallel beam of light from the laser is focused to a point
image at point s by lens L1. Lens L2 is positioned so that the image point at s is reflected from
the rotating mirror MR, and is focused onto the fixed, spherical mirror MF. MF reflects the light
back along the same path to again focus the image at point s. In order that the reflected point
image can be viewed through the microscope, a beam splitter is placed in the optical path, so a
reflected image of the returning light is also formed at point s´. Now, suppose MR is rotated
slightly so that the reflected beam strikes MF at a different point. Because of the spherical shape
of MF, the beam will still be reflected directly back toward MR. The return image of the source
point will still be formed at points s and s´. The only significant difference in rotating MR by a
slight amount is that the point of reflection on MF changes. Now imagine that MR is rotating
continuously at a very high speed. In this case, the return image of the source point will no
longer be formed at points s and s´. This is because, with MR rotating, a light pulse that travels
from MR to MF and back finds MR at a different angle when it returns than when it was first
reflected. As will be shown in the following derivation, by measuring the displacement of the
image point caused by the rotation of MR, the velocity of light can be determined.
Quantitative Description
In order to use the Foucault method to measure the speed of light, it’s necessary to determine a
precise relationship between the speed of light and the displacement of the image point. Of
course, other variables of the experimental setup also affect the displacement. These include:

• Rate of rotation of MR
• Distance between MR and MF
• Magnification of L2, which depends on the focal length of L2 and also on the distances
between L2, L1, and MF.

Each of these variables will show up in the final expression that we derive for the speed of light.

To begin the derivation, consider a beam of light leaving the laser. It follows the path described
in the qualitative description above. That is, first the beam is focused to a point at s, and then
reflected from MR to MF, and back to MR. The beam then returns through the beam splitter, and
is refocused to a point at point s´, where it can be viewed through the microscope. This beam of
light is reflected from a particular point on MF. As the first step in the derivation, we must
determine how the point of reflection on MF relates to the rotational angle of MR.

Figure 2a shows the path of the beam of light, from the laser to MF, when MR is at an angle q. In
this case, the angle of incidence of the light path as it strikes MR is also θ and, since the angle of
incidence equals the angle of reflection, the angle between the incident and reflected rays is just
2θ. As shown in the diagram, the pulse of light strikes MF at a point that we have labeled S.
Figure 2b shows the path of the pulse of light if it leaves the laser at a slightly later time, when
MR is at an angle θ1 = θ + ∆θ. The angle of incidence is now equal to θ1 = θ + ∆θ, so that the
angle between the incident and reflected rays is just 2θ1 = 2(θ + ∆θ). This time we label the point
where the pulse strikes MF as S1. If we define D as the distance between MF and MR, then the
distance between S and S1 can be calculated:

S1 - S = D(2θ1 - 2 θ) = D[2(θ + ∆θ) - 2 θ] = 2D∆θ (EQ1)

In the next step in the derivation, it is helpful to think of a single, very quick pulse of light
leaving the laser. Suppose MR is rotating, and this pulse of light strikes MR when it is at angle θ,
as in Figure 2a. The pulse will then be reflected to point S on MF. However, by the time the
pulse returns to MR, MR will have rotated to a new angle, say angle θ1. If MR had not been
rotating, but had remained stationary, this returning pulse of light would be refocused at point s.
Clearly, since MR is now in a different position, the light pulse will be refocused at a different
point. We must now determine where that new point will be.

The situation is very much like that shown in Figure 2b, with one important difference: the beam
of light that is returning to MR is coming from point S on MF, instead of from point S1. To make
the situation simpler, it is convenient to remove the confusion of the rotating mirror and the
beam splitter by looking at the virtual images of the beam path, as shown in Figure 3.

The critical geometry of the virtual images is the same as for the reflected images. Looking at the
virtual images, the problem becomes a simple application of thin lens optics. With MR at angle
θ1, point S1 is on the focal axis of lens L2. Point S is in the focal plane of lens L2, but it is a
distance ∆S = S1 - S away from the focal axis. From thin lens theory, we know that an object of
height ∆S in the focal plane of L2 will be focused in the plane of point s with a height of
(-i/o) ∆S. Here i and o are the distances of the lens from the image and object, respectively, and
the minus sign corresponds to the inversion of the image. As shown in Figure 3, reflection from
the beam splitter forms a similar image of the same height.
Figure 3: Analyzing the Virtual Images

Therefore, ignoring the minus sign since we aren’t concerned that the image is inverted, we can
write an expression for the displacement (∆s´) of the image point:

i A
∆s ' = ∆s =  ∆S = ∆S (EQ2)
o D+B

Combining equations 1 and 2, and noting that ∆S = S1 - S, the displacement of the image point
relates to the initial and secondary positions of MR by the formula:

2 DA∆θ
∆s ' = (EQ3)

The angle ∆θ depends on the rotational velocity of MR and on the time it takes the light pulse to
travel back and forth between the mirrors MR and MF, a distance of 2D. The equation for this
relationship is:

∆θ = (EQ4)

where c is the speed of light and ω is the rotational velocity of the mirror in radians per second.
(2D/c is the time it takes the light pulse to travel from MR to MF and back.)
Using equation 4 to replace ∆θ in equation 3 gives:

4 AD 2ω
∆s ' = (EQN 5)
c( D + B)

Equation 5 can be rearranged to provide our final equation for the speed of light:

4 AD 2ω
c= (EQN 6)
( D + B)∆s '


c = the speed of light

ω = the rotational velocity of the rotating mirror (MR)

A = the distance between lens L2 and lens L1, minus the focal length of L1

B = the distance between lens L2 and the rotating mirror (MR)

D = the distance between the rotating mirror (MR) and the fixed mirror (MF)

∆s´ = the displacement of the image point, as viewed through the microscope. (∆s´ = s1 – s);
where s is the position of the image point when the rotating mirror (MR) is stationary, and s1 is
the position of the image point when the rotating mirror is rotating with angular velocity ω.)

Equation 6 was derived on the assumption that the image point is the result of a single, short
pulse of light from the laser. But, looking back at equations 1-4, the displacement of the image
point depends only on the difference in the angular position of MR in the time it takes for the
light to travel between the mirrors. The displacement does not depend on the specific mirror
angles for any given pulse. If we think of the continuous laser beam as a series of infinitely small
pulses, the image due to each pulse will be displaced by the same amount. All these images
displaced by the same amount will, of course, result in a single image. By measuring the
displacement of this image, the rate of rotation of MR, and the relevant distances between
components, the speed of light can be measured.

CAUTION: Do not look through the microscope until the polarizers have been placed
between the laser and the beam splitter in step 19. The beam splitter will slightly alter the
position of the laser beam. Readjust L2 on the Component Holder so the beam is again
centered on MR.

NOTE: steps 1-17 (see link on webpage to Pasco manual) will only
need to be repeated if something has been bumped accidentally.
Otherwise, turn on the laser, and rotate the mirror until its beam is
centered on the fixed mirror. Then…
18. Adjust the two alignment screws on the back of MF so the beam is reflected directly back to
the center of MR. This step is best performed with two people: one adjusting MF, and one
watching the beam position at MR.

19. Place the polarizers (attached to either side of a single Component Holder) between the laser
and L1. Begin with the polarizers at right angles to each other, than rotate one until the image
in the microscope is bright enough to view comfortably.

If you can’t find the point image there are several things you can try:
 Vary the tilt of the beam splitter slightly (no more than a few degrees) and turn the
micrometer knob to vary the transverse position of the microscope until the image comes into
 Loosen the lock-screw on the microscope. As shown in Figure 13, remove the microscope
and place a piece of tissue paper over the tube to locate the beam. Adjust the beam splitter
angle and the micrometer knob to center the point image in the tube of the microscope.

Figure 13: Looking for the Beam Image

 Slide the Measuring Microscope a centimeter or so in either direction along the axis of the
Optics Bench. Be sure that the Microscope stays flush against the fence of the Optics Bench.
If this doesn’t work, recheck the alignment, beginning with Step 1.
20. Bring the cross hairs of the microscope into focus by sliding the microscope eyepiece up and

21. Focus the microscope by loosening the lock-screw and sliding the scope up and down. If the
apparatus is properly aligned, you will see the point image through the microscope. Focus
until the image is as sharp as possible.

IMPORTANT: In addition to the point image, you may also see some extraneous beam
images resulting, for example, from reflection of the laser beam from L1. To be sure you are
observing the right image point, place a piece of paper between MR and MF while you watch
the image in the microscope. If the point does not disappear, it is not the correct image.

22. In addition to the point image, you may also see interference fringes through the microscope
(as well as the extraneous beam images mentioned above). These fringes cause no difficulty
as long as the point image is clearly visible. However, the fringes and extraneous beam
images can sometimes be removed without losing the point image. This is accomplished by
turning L2 slightly askew, so it is no longer quite at a right angle to the beam axis
(see Figure 12).

Figure 12: Turning L2 Slightly Askew to Clean Up the Image

Alignment Summary

Figure 14: Equipment Alignment

This summary is for those who are familiar with the equipment and the experiment, and just need
a quick reminder of the steps in the alignment procedure. If you have not successfully aligned the
apparatus before, we recommend that you take the time to go through the detailed alignment
procedure in the preceding section.

1. Align the laser so the laser beam strikes the center of MR (use the alignment jigs).
2. Adjust the rotational axis of MR so it is perpendicular to the beam (i.e. as MR rotates, there
must be a position at which it reflects the laser beam directly back into the laser aperture).
3. Insert L1 to focus the laser beam to a point. Adjust L1 so the beam is still centered on MR.
4. Insert L2 and adjust it so the beam is still centered on MR.
5. Place the Measuring Microscope in position and, again, be sure that the beam is still centered
on MR.

CAUTION: Do not look through the microscope until the polarizers have been placed
between the laser and the beam splitter.

6. Position MF at the chosen distance from MR (2 – 15 meters), so the reflected image from MR
strikes the center of MF.
7. Adjust the position of L2 to focus the beam to a point on MF.

8. Adjust MF so the beam is reflected directly back onto MR.

9. Insert the polarizers between the laser and the beam splitter.
10. Focus the microscope on the image point.
11. Remove polarizers.
Alignment Hints
Once you have the microscope focused, it may still be difficult to obtain a good spot. There may
be several other lights visible in the microscope besides the spot reflected from the fixed mirror.

The most common of these are stray interference patterns. These are caused by multiple
reflections from the surfaces of the lenses, and may be ignored. If necessary, you may be able to
eliminate them by angling the lenses 1 – 2°.

Stray Spots are most often caused by reflections off the window of the rotating mirror housing.
To determine which spot is the one you must measure, block the beam path between the rotating
mirror and the fixed mirror. The relevant spot will disappear.

If the spot you need to measure is significantly off-center, you can move it by adjusting the angle
of the beam splitter.

Another common problem is a spot that is “stretched” with no easily discernible maxima. Check
first to make sure that this is the spot you need by blocking the beam path between the moving
and fixed mirrors. If it is, then twist L2 slightly until the image coalesces into a single spot.

Once the mirror begins to rotate, it is safe to look into the microscope without the polarizers.
You will notice that your carefully aligned pattern has changed: now the entire field is covered
with a random interference pattern, and there is a bright band down the center of the field. Ignore
the interference pattern; there’s nothing you can do about it anyway. The band is the image of the
laser when, once each rotation, the mirror reflects it into the microscope beam splitter. This is
also unavoidable.

Your actual spot will probably be just to one side of the bright band. You can check for it by
blocking and unblocking the beam path between the rotating mirror and fixed mirror and
watching to see what disappears.

If you aligned everything perfectly, the spot will be hidden by the bright band; in this case, make
sure that you have a spot when the rotating mirror is fixed and is reflecting the laser to the fixed
mirror. If you do have the correct spot under stationary conditions, then misalign the fixed mirror
very slightly (0.004° or less) around the horizontal axis. This will bring the actual spot out from
under the bright band.


Making the Measurement

The speed of light measurement is made by rotating the mirror at high speeds and using the
microscope and micrometer to measure the corresponding deflection of the image point. By
rotating the mirror first in one direction, then in the opposite direction, the total beam deflection
is doubled, thereby doubling the accuracy of the measurement.

Important—to Protect the Rotating Mirror Assembly:

 Before turning on the motor, be sure the lockscrew for the rotating mirror is completely
loosened, so the mirror rotates freely by hand.
 Whenever the speed of the motor is accelerated, the red LED on the front panel of the motor
control box will light up. As the speed stabilizes, this light should go off. If it does not, turn
off the motor. Something is interfering with the motor rotation. Check to be sure the lock-
screw for MR is fully loosened.
 Never run the motor with the MAX REV/SEC button pushed for more than one minute at a
time, and always allow about a minute between runs for the motor to cool off.

1. With the apparatus aligned and the beam image in sharp focus (see the previous section), set
the direction switch on the rotating mirror power supply to CW, and turn on the motor. If the
image was not in sharp focus, adjust the microscope. You should also turn L2 slightly askew
(about 1 - 2°) to improve the image. To get the best image you may need to adjust the
microscope and L2 several times. Let the motor warm up at about 600 revolutions/sec for at
least 3 minutes.
2. Slowly increase the speed of rotation. Notice how the beam deflection increases.
3. Use the ADJUST knob to bring the rotational speed up to about 1,000 revolutions/sec. Then
push the MAX REV/SEC button and hold it down. When the rotation speed stabilizes, rotate
the micrometer knob on the microscope to align the center of the beam image with the cross
hair in the microscope that is perpendicular to the direction of deflection. Record the speed at
which the motor is rotating, turn off the motor, and record the micrometer reading.
Figure 15: Diagram of the Foucault Method

4. Reverse the direction of the mirror rotation by switching the direction switch on the power
supply to CCW. Allow the mirror to come to a complete stop before reversing the direction.
Then repeat your measurement as in step 3.

 When reversing the direction of movement of the micrometer carriage, there will always be
some movement of the micrometer knob before the carriage responds. Though this source of
error is small, it can be eliminated. Just adjust the initial position of the micrometer stage so
that you always turn the micrometer knob in the same direction as you adjust it.
 When the mirror is rotated at 1,000 rev/sec or more, the image point will widen in the
direction of displacement. Position the microscope cross hair in the center of the resulting
 The micrometer on the Measuring Microscope is graduated in increments of 0.01 mm for the
beam deflections.

5. The following equation was derived earlier in the manual:

4 AD 2ω
( D + B)∆s '

When adjusted to fit the parameters just measured, it becomes:

8πAD 2 (Re v / sec cw + Re v / sec ccw )

( D + B)( s 'cw − s 'ccw )

Use this equation, along with the diagram in Figure 15, to calculate c, the speed of light. (To
measure A, measure the distance between L1 and L2, then subtract the focal length of L1, 48
B) Michaelson Interferometer. The equipment should be mostly set up, and all you’ll need to
do is follow the steps on the final two pages below. However, please note the following,
from Wikipedia which explains why you’re seeing ‘rings’ of interference (the Pasco manual
doesn’t address this at all):

A Michelson interferometer consists

minimally of mirrors M1 & M2 and a beam
splitter M. In Fig 2, a source S emits light
that hits the beam splitter (in this case, a
plate beamsplitter) surface M at point C. M
is partially reflective, so part of the light is
transmitted through to point B while some is
reflected in the direction of A. Both beams
recombine at point C' to produce an
interference pattern incident on the detector
at point E (or on the retina of a person's
eye). If there is a slight angle between the
two returning beams, for instance, then an
imaging detector will record a sinusoidal
fringe pattern as shown in Fig. 3b. If there is
perfect spatial alignment between the returning beams, then there will not be any such pattern but
rather a constant intensity over the beam dependent on the differential pathlength; this is
difficult, requiring very precise control of the beam paths.

Fig. 2 shows use of a coherent (laser) source. Narrowband spectral light from a discharge or even
white light can also be used, however to obtain significant interference contrast it is required that
the differential pathlength is reduced below the coherence length of the light source. That can be
only micrometers for white light, as discussed below.

If a lossless beamsplitter is employed, then one can show that optical energy is conserved. At
every point on the interference pattern, the power that is not directed to the detector at E is rather
present in a beam (not shown) returning in the direction of the source.
Figure 3. Formation of fringes in a Michelson interferometer

As seen in Fig. 3a and 3b, the observer has a direct view of mirror M1 seen through the beam
splitter, and sees a reflected image M'2 of mirror M2. The fringes can be interpreted as the result
of interference between light coming from the two virtual images S'1 and S'2 of the original
source S. The characteristics of the interference pattern depend on the nature of the light source
and the precise orientation of the mirrors and beam splitter. In Fig. 3a, the optical elements are
oriented so that S'1 and S'2 are in line with the observer, and the resulting interference pattern
consists of circles centered on the normal to M1 and M'2 (fringes of equal inclination). If, as in
Fig. 3b, M1 and M'2 are tilted with respect to each other, the interference fringes will generally
take the shape of conic sections (hyperbolas), but if M1 and M'2 overlap, the fringes near the axis
will be straight, parallel, and equally spaced (fringes of equal thickness). If S is an extended
source rather than a point source as illustrated, the fringes of Fig. 3a must be observed with a
telescope set at infinity, while the fringes of Fig. 3b will be localized on the mirrors.
012-07137B Precision Interferometer

Experiment 2: The Index of Refraction of Air

– Basic Interferometer (OS-9255A) 2

Index of Refraction (n)

– Laser (OS-9171)
– Laser Alignment Bench (OS-9172)
– Interferometer Accessories (OS-9256A)
Rotational pointer, Vacuum cell, Vacuum pump

In the Michelson interferometer, the characteristics of the 0
fringe pattern depend on the phase relationships between 0 Gas Pressure (cm Hg)
the two interfering beams. There are two ways to change
Figure 2.1. Index of Refraction versus Gas
the phase relationships. One way is to change the distance
traveled by one or both beams (by moving the movable
mirror, for example). Another way is to change the
medium through which one or both of the beams pass.
Either method will influence the interference pattern. In
this experiment you will use the second method to
Vacuum Cell
measure the index of refraction for air.
For light of a specific frequency, the wavelength λ varies
18 mm FL LENS




according to the formula:



λ = λo/n;
Air Outlet
where λo is the wavelength of the light in a vacuum, and
n is the index of refraction for the material in which the
light is propagating. For reasonably low pressures, the
index of refraction for a gas varies linearly with the gas





pressure. Of course for a vacuum, where the pressure is

zero, the index of refraction is exactly 1. A graph of
index of refraction versus pressure for a gas is shown in
Figure 2.1. By experimentally determining the slope, the
index of refraction of air can be determined at various
pressures. Figure 2.2. Equipment Setup
1. Align the laser and interferometer in the Michelson mode. See Setup and Operation.
2. Place the rotational pointer between the movable mirror and the beam-splitter (see Figure 2.2).
Attach the vacuum cell to its magnetic backing and push the air hose of the vacuum pump over the
air outlet hole of the cell. Adjust the alignment of the fixed mirror as needed so the center of the
interference pattern is clearly visible on the viewing screen. (The fringe pattern will be somewhat
distorted by irregularities in the glass end-plates of the vacuum cell. This is not a problem.)
3. For accurate measurements, the end-plates of the vacuum cell must be perpendicular to the laser
beam. Rotate the cell and observe the fringes. Based on your observations, how can you be sure
that the vacuum cell is properly aligned?

® 13
Precision Interferometer 012-07137B

4. Be sure that the air in the vacuum cell is at atmospheric pressure. If you are using the OS-8502 Hand-
Held Vacuum Pump, this is accomplished by flipping the vacuum release toggle switch.
5. Record Pi, the initial reading on the vacuum pump gauge. Slowly pump out the air in the vacuum cell. As
you do this, count N, the number of fringe transitions that occur. When you're done, record N and also
Pf, the final reading on the vacuum gauge. (Some people prefer to begin with the vacuum cell evacuated,
then count fringes as they let the air slowly out. Use whichever method is easier for you.)

➤ NOTE: Most vacuum gauges measure pressure with respect to atmospheric pressure (i.e., 34 cm Hg
means that the pressure is 34 cm Hg below atmospheric pressure, which is ~ 76 cm Hg). The actual
pressure inside the cell is:

Pabsolute = Patmospheric – Pgauge

Analyzing Your Data

As the laser beam passes back and forth between the beam-splitter and the movable mirror, it passes
twice through the vacuum cell. Outside the cell the optical path lengths of the two interferometer beams
do not change throughout the experiment. Inside the cell, however, the wavelength of the light gets longer
as the pressure is reduced.
Suppose that originally the cell length, d, was 10 wavelengths long (of course, it's much longer). As you
pump out the cell, the wavelength increases until, at some point, the cell is only 9-1/2 wavelengths long.
Since the laser beam passes twice through the cell, the light now goes through one less oscillation within
the cell. This has the same effect on the interference pattern as when the movable mirror is moved
toward the beam-splitter by 1/2 wavelength. A single fringe transition will have occurred.
Originally there are Ni = 2d/λ λi wavelengths of light within the cell (counting both passes of the laser
beam). At the final pressure there are Nf = 2d/λ λf wavelengths within the cell. The difference between
these values, Ni – Nf , is just N, the number of fringes you counted as you evacuated the cell. Therefore:
N = 2d/λ λf.
λi - 2d/λ
However, λi = λ0/ni and λf = λ0/nf; where ni and nf are the initial and final values for the index of
λ0; so that ni – nf = Nλ
refraction of the air inside the cell. Therefore N = 2d(ni – nf) /λ λ0/2d. The slope of
the n vs pressure graph is therefore:
ni – nf Nλ 0
Pi – Pf 2d(P i – P f )

where Pi = the initial air pressure; Pf = the final air pressure; ni = the index of refraction of air at pressure
Pi; nf = the index of refraction of air at pressure Pf ; N = the number of fringe transitions counted during
evacuation; λ0 = the wavelength of the laser light in vacuum (see your instructor);
d = the length of the vacuum cell (3.0 cm).
1. Calculate the slope of the n vs pressure graph for air.
2. On a separate piece of paper, draw the n vs pressure graph.

1. From your graph, what is natm, the index of refraction for air at a pressure of 1 atmosphere (76 cm Hg).
2. In this experiment, a linear relationship between pressure and index of refraction was assumed. How
might you test that assumption?
3. The index of refraction for a gas depends on temperature as well as pressure. Describe an experiment
that would determine the temperature dependence of the index of refraction for air.

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